The Los Angeles Kings have locked up a berth in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. The San Jose Sharks welcome them in with a chance to lock up home-ice advantage in a preview of the likely first-round matchup between the Pacific Division rivals Thursday, April 3.
It is not often in sports that teams with something on the line meet late in the season with this much certainty that they will be meeting in the first round. Usually nothing is on the line while things are still in the air.
In the final game of the 2009 NFL season, the Green Bay Packers visited the Arizona Cardinals the game before they knew they would meet in the playoffs. The game would be in Phoenix no matter which team won, so they were careful not to tip their hands offensively, opening the door for a record scoring day over 90 points.
Ironically, it ended on a defensive overtime score when Arizona jumped off-sides, face-masked Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and pounced on the loose ball for a touchdown return. There were no flags, and people question NHL officiating?
What makes this situation with the Kings unique is that the two are almost locked in as foes so early. To win the Pacific Division, the Sharks would need to win out or have the hot Anaheim Ducks play sub-.500 hockey when three of their remaining games are against teams at the bottom of the Western Conference.
San Jose will finish as the second place team in the Pacific Division. A regulation win over Los Angeles locks the most recent team to win a Stanley Cup in a full season into third place, putting the teams on a collision course.
The reality is that the Sharks have more on the line. Even if the goal of winning the Pacific Division is remote, they are chasing home-ice advantage in potential Western Conference finals matchups with the Colorado Avalanche or Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings cannot be caught by anyone to change their first-round seed. They have almost no chance of meeting teams they can have home-ice advantage against in the Western Conference finals and have almost no chance of being caught by the Minnesota Wild (and no chance by anyone else) even if those teams should somehow meet.
Should they win this game in regulation, there is no way San Jose does not earn two points over the last four, much less for that to coincide with Los Angeles winning out. No one on either team will admit it—maybe not even to each other—but neither wants to play the other in the first round because the teams are so evenly-matched.
The seven-game 2013 Western Conference semifinals win for the Kings left them with too little to handle the eventual Stanley Cup champions. The series was over in five games.
The 2013 Pacific Division champion Ducks are the better matchup for either team. They can be nasty but are not as physical as Los Angeles. They are very good on both ends of the ice, but still the weakest of the three defensively.
Anaheim has the feel of last year's first-round exit team, but can probably battle through a Western Conference wild card team for one last run for Teemu Selanne. Not that Los Angeles is going to help San Jose reach first place with a loss to increase the chance of a Southern California series. That only delays the meeting in Northern California to the second round.
This one will be a battle for Pacific Division pride. It will be rivals wanting to set the tone for late April. It will be teams playing tight and not giving their opponent any openings.
This series has been dominated by the home team of late, though the Kings did register a road win in the 2013-14 NHL season. They are the fifth-best road team in the league at 22-12-3, but the Sharks are the best home team since Todd McLellan took over behind the bench in 2008 and third this season at 26-6-5.
One reason the teams match well is they have similarities and differences. Both are deep at forward and on the blue line. Both have good goalies and are committed defensively, even on scoring lines.
How they get there is very different. San Jose has a minimal edge in faceoffs (plus-41 win margin) but is otherwise dominant in the comparison of puck possession statistics. The third-best team in takeaways with 591 is fourth-most prone to giveaways with 775—right after Los Angeles at 811, which also has the fewest takeaways in the NHL with 306.
The Kings rely on hitting. While the subjective tracking of the statistic itself is not reliable, they have 995 more hits than the Sharks with each having played 77 games in the 2013-14 NHL season. The only way that kind of statistical margin exists is if the hitting edge is real and also exaggerated.
Ultimately, San Jose scores over one more goal per two games and gives up less than one additional goal every three. No team has as big a margin of power play to penalty kill time, and both units are ranked higher than their counterparts. Los Angeles averages 3.6 fewer shots per game and allows 1.3 fewer.
Other than the good drama this matchup creates, there are a few things less obvious than its competitiveness to focus on. Each thing in the pictured list of three predictions for this game builds on the last...
Antti Niemi plays well
Antti Niemi is not often going to win a battle with Jonathan Quick in net. The San Jose Sharks can win even if this is close.
In 24 of his last 53 games, Niemi's save percentage has been below .900. He had done at least that well in six of eight before struggling with poor defensive play in front of him in two more.
San Jose's commitment and focus are there against good teams, especially rivals. Quick will be better, but will have to steal this game for Los Angeles to win because Niemi will play well.
Logan Couture scores late goal
Logan Couture was taken off the top power play line, but that gave the San Jose Sharks two good units instead of one deadly one. It also aligned those units with the regular lines to help the team not have tired forwards after the power play.
The one extra penalty the Los Angeles Kings are called for will put them in position to face that second unit without their top penalty kill on the ice. That opens the door for Logan Couture to get a key late goal.
San Jose Sharks win 3-2
The Los Angeles Kings cannot overcome two games in two cities in two nights when the second game is this good. The San Jose Sharks squeak through a regulation win.
San Jose will get 10 or more additional shots on goal compared to their rivals and do a better-than-normal job of creating traffic. Jonathan Quick will not be other-worldly and gives up three goals to go with over 30 saves.